OFF THE RECORD
Alan raises an eyebrow at the outlandish claims made by the two brothers behind the Magna Britannia concerning the ages of some Cumberland residents
Tall tales from the Magna Britannia
Recently, I came across the Cumberland section of a remarkable and sadly unfinished work called Magna Britannia (described in its subtitle as ‘a concise topographical account of the several counties of Great Britain’), published by the antiquarian brothers Daniel and Samuel Lysons between 1806 and 1822. In that year Samuel died and the project (which in theory would eventually have covered all 86 counties in England, Wales and Scotland) came to an abrupt halt.
The county surveys undertaken by the brothers are notable because they gave plenty of attention to topics such as manufacturing, communications, agriculture and population. This means that today, two centuries later, the sections that were finished (a total of nine, alphabetically from Bedfordshire to Devon) are a valuable resource for historians.
I was fascinated by part of the Cumberland account that dealt with ‘longevity’. The brothers stated that during their visits to the county they were struck by the number of very great ages recorded on gravestones and, talking to local people, learned “it was the generally received opinion, that the inhabitants of this county were remarkably long lived”.
They decided to do more research and discovered that, since 1771, clergy in the diocese of Carlisle had been instructed to enter the age of the deceased in the burial registers. The statistics that they came up with were remarkable. Observing that only about one person in every 32 reached the age of 80 in the country as a whole, they were astonished to find in many Cumberland parishes the proportion was as high as one in four, and in some areas more than one in 25 people lived to be over 90. They gave numerous actual examples, taken from parish registers, to illustrate their findings – a list of 144 instances of people living to be 100 years or more.
The brothers claimed to have tested the accuracy of many of these findings but we might be more sceptical. The only reliable evidence would be a baptism and a burial entry (as contrasted with local stories and family tales), but as family historians, we all know how difficult it can be to make absolutely definite links. Take a made-up example. John Bragg was buried in 1790. The brothers look back through the registers and find a John Bragg christened in 1695. They therefore assume that John Bragg was 95 when he died. But they don’t notice the burial of John Bragg, infant, in 1696, and they’ve ignored the baptism of a quite different John Bragg in 1729.
Their most spectacular claim was about the longest-lived of all. John Taylor was born at Garrigill, near Alston in the North Pennines, at an unspecifified date (which is worryingly vague!) and he worked as a lead-miner. Taylor was said to have been 14 or 15 at the time of the solar eclipse on 29 March 1652 (so would have been born in approximately 1638). From 1652 onwards, the brothers write, he was a working miner for no less than 100 years, living in Alston, County Durham, and in Scotland. They state that he married at the age of between 60 and 70 (again, conveniently imprecise and perhaps highly implausible for other reasons!) and then had nine children by his wife, who died in 1758. He eventually died, they tell us, at Crawford, Lanarkshire, at an equally worrying unspecified date, believed to be 1772 (they consulted the minister at Moffat, who testified to this but admitted no burial register was kept in the parish). So, he was at least 135 years old at the time of his death.
It’s evident that this tale is almost entirely fanciful – not least, the idea that a lead-miner (average age of death 38) would have worked underground for 100 years, though perhaps that heroic vigour was also demonstrated in his alleged marital history! Even with the miracles of modern medicine, the longest verified lifespan is 122 years. Sadly, John Taylor’s story is just too fantastic to believe – but wouldn’t it be great to have him on your family tree!
Sadly, John Taylor’s story is just too fantastic to believe – but wouldn’t it be great to have him on your family tree!